What’s In a Name? Meaning of Place Names in Greenland

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Do you ever wonder how places get their names?

In Greenland, places usually get their names based on the natural features that characterize the area. It is a true testament to the intertwined relationship between Greenlanders and the powerful nature they live in and love. This is also why many places have the same name. For example, study a good map of Greenland and count how many Uummannaqs and Qeqertaqs you find 🙂

The nature-based Greenlandic names are like a code to decipher, and once you know the key it makes perfect sense! For example, Natural Feature + Size of Feature = Place Name. It is far more fascinating than reading European names all the time.

The four municipalities in Greenland undertook the goal to map all the place names in Greenland. Researchers or very inquisitive people might like to try navigating their interactive yet technical sites:

North Greenland, Mid Greenland, Southwest Greenland/East Greenland, South Greenland.

In an anthropocentric world, places are usually named after the people who ‘discovered’ them. This happened in Greenland’s relatively recent history as European whalers, Scandinavian Vikings, and Danish colonists came up. Claushavn… Jakobshavn… Julianehåb… the list goes on. These are the names that places received as Europeans began arriving to Greenland after Inuit had been thriving here on their own for nearly 3500 years.

Fortunately, in my opinion, the Greenlandic names prevail today!

So if you, too, are wondering how places in Greenland get their names, here’s a small glossary of place names in Greenland. (And if you are interested in knowing the meaning of personal names in Greenland, see Oqaasileriffik, the Language Secretariat).

Meaning of Place Names in Greenland:

Kallaallit Nunaat / Inuit Nunaat = the lands of Greenlanders / the lands of people (Greenland’s name)

Sermersuaq = large glacier (Greenland Ice Sheet)

Qaasuitsoq = place of polar darkness (Municipality of North Greenland)

Avannaa = north (area of North Greenland between Kangaatsiaq and Qaanaaq)

Avanersuaq = great north (area of North Greenland between Qaanaaq and North Pole)

Qeqqa = in the middle (Municipality of Arctic Circle Region)

Sermersooq = has many glaciers (Municipality of Capital Region and East Greenland)

Kujalleq = south (Municipality of South Greenland)

Pituffik = mooring place, place to tie something (village in North Greenland that originally stood where US Thule Air Base now stands)

Upernavik = springtime place (town in North Greenland)

Uummannaq = like a heart (town in North Greenland)

Illorsuit = place with large buildings (village in North Greenland)

Ikerasak = place with a channel (village in North Greenland)

Niaqornat = place shaped like a head (village in North Greenland)

Nuussuaq = large peninsula (distinctive land formation in North Greenland)

Qeqertarsuaq = large island (town in North Greenland; distinctive island off west coast of Greenland)

Kangerluk = fjord (village in North Greenland)

Itinneq Kangilleq = eastern area between fjords (land formation near Qeqertarsuaq in North Greenland)

Oqaatsut = cormorants (village in North Greenland)

Saqqaq = shiny side, sunny side (village in North Greenland)

Ilulissat = icebergs (town in North Greenland)

Sermermiut = people that live near the glacier (ancient village in North Greenland outside of Ilulissat)

Sermeq Kujalleq = southern glacier (Ilulissat Glacier at UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Aasiaat = place with spiders (town in North Greenland)

Qasigiannguit = playful seals (town in North Greenland)

Sisimiut = the people that live near the place with fox dens (town in Arctic Circle Region)

Kangerlussuaq = large fjord (village in Arctic Circle Region)

Maniitsoq = bumpy, uneven (town in Arctic Circle Region)

Nuuk = peninsula (capital city, located in Capital Region)

Akia = land on the other side (land formation near Nuuk)

Quassussuaq = large ridge (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Lille Malene)

Ukkusissat = soapstones (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Store Malene)

Sermitsiaq = has had glaciers before (mountain in Nuuk)

Kingittorsuaq = stands very tall; has very high elevation (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Hjortetakken)

Qooroq / Qooqqut = valley / valleys (good fishing spot and a place with huts & restaurant inside Nuuk Fjord)

Kapisilik = place with salmon (place with huts inside Nuuk Fjord)

Qeqertarsuatsiaat = quite big island (village in Capital Region)

Paamiut = the people that live at the mouth, a reference to the nearby fjord (town in Capital Region)

Narsaq = plain, low area (town in South Greenland)

Narsarsuaq = large plain, low area (village in South Greenland)

Qaqortoq = white (town in South Greenland)

Nanortalik = place with polar bears (town in South Greenland)

Ammassalik = place with capelin (old name of town in East Greenland now called Tasiilaq)

Tasiilaq = place with a lake (new name of town in East Greenland formerly called Ammassalik)

Sermilik = place with glaciers (distinctive fjord in East Greenland)

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12 thoughts on “What’s In a Name? Meaning of Place Names in Greenland

  1. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing. Welsh and English place names are often about the physical features too, but in England you need to know the older languages used.

    • Clare – Thank you for your comment. I have also heard about Welsh! It is supposed to be similar to Greenlandic in terms of structure. “Poly-synthetic” it’s called.

      • Yes- as in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch- but that was a publicity stunt, deliberately to get a long place name.

      • Oh and-

        Can I ask you a favour? Would you visit my blog? There is the stats map almost coloured in, with Greenland still white. It would give me huge pleasure to have a visitor from Greenland.

      • Hehe – I will pass it on to my blogging friend! I’m not in Greenland at the moment 😉

  2. Want to know the origin of the name Qaanaaq. Also want to know if Danish was spoken in the Thule area in the 1940s or early 1950s?

    • Maria,

      Thank you for the readership and for the questions!

      I will preface my answer with this: you must not take my reply as 100% true fact! 🙂 I am not certain of the answer to either of your questions, but I CAN use some evidence and background knowledge of what I do know to give you a pretty good starting point.

      According to the language secretariat for Greenland, Qaanaaq is only a place name and has no literal meaning. What is very interesting, however, is this: if you flip the two syllables, the word looks like “naaqqaaq” which the secretariat translates as “a new outcrop”. Now maybe this is totally a coincidence, but it is, in fact, quite fitting! The town of Qaanaaq as we know it today is NOT located at its original location as decided by Inuit. Inuit originally created Pituffik (which means “a place to tie something”, such as a dock for a boat or a peg for a dog), but when the Americans built Thule Air Base in mid-century, they relocated the Inuit to what is now Qaanaaq. As homage to the Inuit community they uprooted, the name Pituffik is maintained for the airport at Thule Air Base.

      As for the language spoken, I will take a very educated guess and say there was NO Danish up there at that time (and still today). In fact, Avannaarmiutut (translates literally to: the language of the people that live in the far north) is colloquially considered a separate language from West Greenland and East Greenlandic, though officially it is listed only as a dialect of West Greenlandic.

      Returning again to the fact that Americans created and controlled Thule Air Base, and still do today, I would say that English might actually be more likely as the secondary language up there – although surely only by those directly related to the base.

      Hope this helps! Feel free to write any time 🙂

      • Thank you for your reply. Very interesting. Can I assume that Qaanaaq is an Inuit word and not a Danish word? Inuit appears to commonly use aa in names (and words?) whereas Danish does not appear to do so (though I may be wrong there!).

        Thanks,

        Maria

        >

      • Thanks again.

        Can’t help feeling it’s the middle if the night there, whereas it is lunchtime in Australia.

        Shouldn’t you be tucked up tight in an igloo or somewhere equally warm? As it is summer here and very bright daylight, I assume it is a cold, dark night there. No midnight sun at this time of year.

        Keep warm and sleep well.

        Merry Christmas and have a great year in 2016.

      • Maria, well in fact I’m in USA right now, but you’re right – definitely no midnight sun at this time of year. Come in summertime for that!

        Hey guess what – there are no igloos in Greenland! Well, I take that back – there are a few aluminum ones at Hotel Arctic, but they’re just for fun.

        PS – There’s an Australian in our office and she keeps a right good blog about Greenland, too. Check her out – http://www.thefourthcontinent.com.

        Take care, and maybe we’ll see each other in Greenland one day!

        – Sarah

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